Transit talks mirror Zion shuttle system

Committee OKs plan but awaits county, city, NPS approvals

This graphic illustrates the shuttle system in place between Springdale, Utah and Zion National Park, on which a recent plan for Arches National Park and Moab is based.
Graphic courtesy of the National Park Service

The Moab Transit Authority Study Committee unanimously approved Chair Michael Liss’ outline for a plan he hopes will alleviate traffic congestion at the entrance to and inside of Arches National Park.

The main objective of the plan is to “create a national park experience that prioritizes biking and walking over private cars,” according to the proposal the committee approved. Representatives from the city, county and other entities were in attendance, but nobody from the National Park Service was at the meeting.

The plan would establish two shuttle systems: one inside Arches and the other running through town, and into Spanish Valley. Liss also calls for changes to infrastructure inside the park that would make hiking and biking more conducive for visitors.

One of the top items from the plan is that it would prohibit the entrance of cars into Arches between the months of March and October. Liss said he believed this plan would push some of the visitation traffic into the shoulder months of the tourism season.

“Car lovers will be motivated to come in the winter months for a driving experience,” the Arches plan reads.

Bike transportation via shuttles, bike parking and bike rentals inside Arches would all be added or expanded under the plan, which now heads to the Grand County Council for approval.

New shuttles, more bikes

Liss’ proposal is based on the shuttle system that has been running between Springdale and Zion National Park for the last 19 years. Liss met with multiple representatives from the area in the process of developing his Arches plan, including the manager of the Zion-Springdale shuttle system.

The plan calls for a large-capacity shuttle loop that includes Devils Garden and the Windows, which would include stops at side roads and some trails. It also calls for an express route between the Arches Visitors Center and Delicate Arch, with two stops at the intersections to Balanced Rock and Devils Garden.

Committee members said that there was a large contingent of visitors who go to Arches to just see the landmarks, such as Delicate Arch, without getting out of their cars, and that such visitors would be the target audience for the express shuttle routes.

Liss also included in his proposal a plan to use 10-passenger vehicles as a means of shuttling visitors willing to pay an extra fee between proposed one-way trailheads and special viewpoints.

Controversial? New hiking trails

By way of achieving the plan’s stated objective of prioritizing walking and biking, the committee agreed to seek expansions and improvements of the relevant infrastructure inside the park, including the blazing of new trails within the “front range” (as opposed to the “wilderness areas”) of Arches.

However, some committee members, most vocally Elaine Gizler, said that proposing new trails inside the park could quickly become a sticking point with Arches administration. She said that in recent years, administrators such as Park Superintendent Kate Cannon have shifted their focus toward conservation of natural resources inside the park over user enjoyment.

Although the plan calls for a more biker-friendly park, no new road paving would be required under the plan, despite a lack of bike lanes on Arches’ roads. Committee members said they were skeptical that the plan would get the Park Service’s approval if it called for more paving, which is why it was excluded from the plan.

‘Throwing arrows’ at Arches

Zacharia Levine, committee member and Grand County’s Community and Economic Development Director, said that a key to engaging the Park Service during this process was to approach the negotiating table with good will.

“We are asking the park to engage with us, except we throw arrows every single time they walk in the room,” Levine said, referencing previous engagements with the park regarding its reservation plan and other matters. “We have to be really conscious of that, because who’s going to want to play ball with somebody who’s throwing arrows? Our business community has not been kind to the park.”

Karen Guzman-Newton, committee member and member of the Moab City Council, emphasized Levine’s point, describing the interactions toward Cannon at a county council meeting a few weeks prior as “an assault.”

Next steps

With the committee’s approval now finalized, the Arches 21 plan will move to the Grand County Council for review. The council will vote its approval or disapproval of requesting that the Utah Department of Transportation study implementation of the plan.

The Moab City Council will review the county’s vote, also approving or denying the request for a UDOT study. Liss will also request that the city commit to redeploying $9.7 million in funding originally earmarked for the development of parking infrastructure in Moab.

The funding was provided by the Utah Legislature as part of a $100 million statewide allocation of tourism revenue, but Liss said that officials from the agency said that redeploying the funds was a “very unlikely scenario.” For his part, Liss said he is “not deterred,” from pursuing the plan.

The last step would be obtaining the consent of the National Park Service to participate in the UDOT shuttle study.

According to Liss, UDOT has already indicated a willingness to fund a study of a Moab shuttle system, such as the one he is proposing. With the approval of the city, county and NPS, UDOT funding for the study may then be secured. However, only the parts of the study unrelated to tourism would receive this funding, which ultimately is sourced from federal grants; studying the parts of the plan impacted by tourism would need separate funding.